East Hamilton Rent Strike Goes to Bay St

A posh corporate suite in Toronto’s financial district had its casual Friday interrupted yesterday when tenants rallied at the office of one of Canada’s largest investment companies, CI Financial, to send them a clear message that one of their investments is pushing working class Hamiltonians out of their homes.

Over 100 tenants from Stoney Creek Towers in east Hamilton are currently in month two of a rent strike against their landlord, CLV, to demand that they drop an Above Guideline Increase (AGI) and make long-overdue repairs to tenants’ units. CI Financial is the largest institutional investor in InterRent, the real estate investment trust which owns CLV.

While Hamilton tenants and T.O. locals from Parkdale Organize! rallied outside the building, two strike captains and two HTSN organizers in their “Sunday best” casually rode the elevator up to CI Financial’s offices and demanded to meet company president Sheila Murray. Meanwhile, dozens of rent strike supporters were making calls to CI executives, demanding that they instruct InterRent to meet striking tenants’ demands.

Murray and CEO Peter Anderson met with tenants in the lobby for a brief, polite and businesslike conversation. They claimed to have only heard of the rent strike five minutes prior (thanks to supporters’ calls) and claimed ignorance of their investment in InterRent (plausible considering the massive size of CI’s $180 billion investment portfolio). After saying they would review the investment and get back to us, they returned to their scheduled meeting. Obviously making buckets of cash was a higher priority to them than talking about the struggles of working class tenants.

The four rent strike organizers were instead offered a meeting with CI’s lawyer, Mathew Scott, which lasted nearly an hour. Tenant-organizers explained to Scott how InterRent’s aggressive investment strategy is affecting Hamilton tenants, gave him a quick run-down of the AGI process, and stressed the negative public relations impact this could have on CI. Scott explained that CI’s complaint process usually involves a 90-day review but said he would expedite a response before July 1 the rent strike moves into its critical third month.

CI has a policy of Environmental and Social Governance and is a signatory to the UN Principles for Responsible Investing, which highlights the financial risks associated with economic inequality, “financialization”, and rent seeking as long term risks to investment growth.

Clearly, CI’s investment in InterRent is squarely opposed to any commitment to social responsibility and, frankly, common decency. InterRent is quite candid in their appeals to investors that their strategy involves squeezing “legacy” tenants from their homes in order to capitalize on vacant units, which have no rent control under Ontario tenancy law. Tenants in Stoney Creek Towers — who have been suffering with shoddy windows, dilapidated units, busted elevators, and generally poor management — are now facing an AGI that, if passed, will raise their rent by nearly 10% over the next two years.

The AGI process, while legal, is widely understood to be a loophole in Ontario rent control laws. It allows real estate investors to increase the value of multi-residential buildings, and foist the cost of cosmetic renovations on long term tenants by raising their rent. As an added bonus, repeated use of AGI’s increases the likelihood that tenants will be priced out of the building, leaving units open to unlimited rent increases.

In short, AGIs are legal, but wrong. They are a key mechanism in the process of displacement of working class people from neighbourhoods and cities, and major contributing factor to the general crisis of housing affordability in Ontario. In our experience, there is widespread public concern about the social violence currently being inflicted on working class tenants, which is being reflected in the media coverage of tenant organizing. There is widespread outrage among the tenants directly facing this hostile treatment. No one individual company wants their “brand” to be associated with it. Until demands are met, rent strike organizers will continue to highlight the role of InterRent and its institutional investors like CI in the process of displacing people from their homes neighbourhoods. We will continue to publicly associate their corporate names with the destruction of the social fabric of cities like Hamilton.

As the largest institutional investor in InterRent, we are calling on CI to instruct the latter to immediately drop all Residential Tenancy Act notices to striking tenants, to come into direct negotiations with the strike committee, and ultimately to meet tenants’ reasonable and decent demands.

Concepts like “corporate social responsibility” are unlikely to pass the BS detectors of most working class tenants. We understand that the root of the problem lies in the fact that housing — a basic human need — is being treated as a casino chip by the financial elites. We don’t want the roofs over our heads to be controlled by a tangle of Bay St interests who have no concept of the struggles our communities face to survive with dignity and independence. However, we also understand that outrage and instability around the housing crisis is a tangible risk to investors. And if not, we will make it one.

We encourage rent strike supporters to continue calling CI’s head office about the rent strike (416–364–1145) and to donate to the rent strike defense fund.